DBC Pierre is already at the appointed bar when I arrive 15 minutes early for our interview. He’s smoking and chatting outside and I worry about how to interrupt him but he’s as courteous as he is convivial. We have met once before – I used to work in a bookshop in a train station and once caught him unawares when he wandered in, and got him to sign a stack of his books. I don’t expect him to remember but, flustered, I mention it and surprisingly he does. “But the shop’s not there anymore, is it?” he says, shaking his head. He orders a cappuccino and we settle in.
I’m excited to talk about his new book, Release the Bats – part memoir, part guide to writing a novel – in which he doesn’t pull his punches. “When you have to write about not pulling your punches then you have to… start not to pull your punches yourself!” he says.
But were you nervous about spilling your secrets?
“On a personal level?”
No, in terms of writing.
“No, because the secrets will be known, I don’t know which ones but they will be known. I don’t think authors hide the ladder, so to speak, but they are just busy writing books… it’s amazing how many young writers I meet, though, who are struggling to find some basic keys. The tips are not the edge that I have.”
So what is the edge that you have?
“It’s whatever alchemy I can bring to the book. The tips are about formatting it and that should be in the public domain, it should be Spotify for writers. My particular song which I sing in writing is what I have but… it is tricky. I can’t pretend to be any kind of expert, I bumbled into it.”
At this, I point to my copy of Vernon God Little which has “Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2003” emblazoned across it. By some metrics, he has have the authority to speak about this, I suggest.
“A little bit, but there are many more accomplished writers who have written much more and know many more tips. The problem is that when I was writing, those authors hadn’t written the book to pass on those tips, the ones I was going crazy to discover. If you look at a ‘how to write’ book, it’s most often written by an editor about what they would like to see, and there’s a lot of value even in that but we still need some kind of tools just to get over the snags we bump into.”
There is something in the self-loathing that comes from writing that helps the job along, that also feeds the writing.”
But I get the sense that you think it’s necessarily painful?
“It makes the writing good. I was thinking this on the way here. It was about the energy that makes you write, and makes you write well, it has to be strong – it has to be an anger or a self-loathing, a frustration that acts like a pipe cleaner and pushes out all the shit we need to get out into writing. But there is something in the self-loathing that comes from writing that helps the job along, that also feeds the writing. By that I mean, if you’ve spent days wasting time and avoiding the work and feeling bad because you haven’t been disciplined, you haven’t sat down, even that energy pushes you to the next phase. Once it starts happening on the page, it drags you along with it. Imagine you’ve got a ten-year-old kid and you spend just one of those days that’s a battle of wills, a power struggle, and you finally get the damned kid to bed, you’re exhausted. You kind of hate the kid but you also kind of love him and – I speak without kids but the same thing happens with people too – you just think “thank fuck!” and get through to the end of it. That energy also comes from writing when you’re struggling with a paragraph or a page and the fucken thing will just not lie down and you tussle with it and you stay up too late and it fucks up your next day. Eventually, just the energy generated from all that frustration pushes a solution out. It doesn’t have to be like that though, I’m sure there are a lot of spontaneous geniuses, I’m sure there are a lot of people who will have an easier ride of it. But I just have an inkling… the book is more particularly directed to folk on the usual human spectrum, subject to psychology and ups and downs and insecurities and shit, which can make your moods fluctuate. I’ve got a sense that the struggler has got the potential to write something great because that struggle is the midnight oil and it charges the energy of the page. I don’t want to prescribe difficulties if they don’t naturally occur but I would take the difficulty as a good sign, provided we stick with it.”
I ask him why anyone would put themselves through this amount of pain, hoping he will say that the process offers something redemptive. Instead, he shocks me by saying, “The reason you do it is the reason you put yourself through all that other kind of shit, the bad relationship, the crap job, it’s another one of those dead ends that we get into. You would never recommend anyone write a book if they want a comfortable life. However, it is one where you can break through the wall at the end and escape.”
I don’t want to be glib about it but is there beauty in sticking with it?
“There is, to a greater or lesser degree. There is beauty in it… it’s fantastic to see words take shape on the page that you like. I’m not going to say the job has a lot of those moments but… you are glad to write once you know you’re going to stick with it.”
I’m curious about the books that don’t get finished and am mindful that he is rumoured to have abandoned at least one novel, but he won’t be drawn.
“Oh, if you don’t stick with it, then you’ll never know. If you’re trying to escape any kind of self-loathing, then you really have to stick with it. It’s not like all the other shit you tried like… being a fisherman who bought the fishing rod and then never went fishing. You have to stick with this one because you are challenging yourself. It can’t be one of those psychological traps where you prove to yourself again that you’re not good enough or that you’re going to fail. It’s a mirror.”
When he wrote Vernon God Little, he imagined he was writing only for himself. I’m curious to know if he still does that.
“Fiction? Genre writing or writing this book was different but literature… yes, because once you start imagining what the market or the publisher wants, you’re fucked. And it won’t turn out to be your greatest wish and if it doesn’t turn out to be their greatest wish, you’ve wasted all that time.”
And you’ve pleased no one.
Rachel Cusk has said that a novelist must always know why their characters make certain decisions, even if the characters don’t know. Do you agree?
“Yes, because if you’re writing a modern novel, it’s good for it to make sense, for the world you’re describing to have a recognisable logic and that shit doesn’t happen at random, but you’re right that characters can lead the journey.”
But as a writer, you’re not initially in control of that.
“No, but you can go back and make it look like you are. And that’s the job of editing, to go back and make it all look like that happened according to the logical dynamic of the book.”
I suggest the joy of writing initially in this unconscious way is that if the result frightens you, you can cut it down.
“Yes, God, yes. If you got shagged by your father and that starts to take a parallel shape, you can put that on a track by itself and learn as you write… By definition, the worlds that we write about will be worlds that we can conceive of, which means at some level we are familiar with, that have been set in motion by the flywheels of our own imagination.”
In the back of my mind are the numerous problems and threads I’m working on, just fragments of angles which I couldn’t even express but I know what they are.”
Why haven’t we had your memoir?
“This book was the compromise. There are too many people that are recognisable and I’m not at liberty to tell their stories… until some more people pass to their glory. I couldn’t capitalise on their stories. And the story is still unfolding.”
How do you feel about the necessity of being alone to be a writer?
“Oh, I’m perfectly happy and if a flight gets cancelled for six or seven hours, I’m happy to sit and think.”
What do you do if you’re stuck when you’re writing a book?
“Get up, do something that will change the angle… or get pissed. I swear it helps. It sounds very cosmic and mysterious but I’m sure it’s quite scientific. In the back of my mind are the numerous problems and threads I’m working on, just fragments of angles which I couldn’t even express but I know what they are. Tonight, we’ll have a few drinks and things that I see or think or feel or hear will present solutions to those angles. I’ll go back to the desk with cigarette papers with notes and shit written on them.”
It sounds rude but I still can’t conceive of how Pierre wrote that first, prizewinning book. His life was famously chaotic. How did he stick with it?
“Oh, I had to. I made a commitment to myself to stay excited. Once you decide to please yourself, there’s no need to ever be bored by what you’re writing, so you can throw in a gag or whatever, you can have fun with it. It’s a big job and it can be difficult but you can have a laugh… a day.”
Pierre’s editor turns up at this point and the writer visibly relaxes. Before this, he had rolled two cigarettes in quick succession, tucking one behind his ear and placing one in his tin. I was anxious he would leave to smoke them and we would have to break up our interview. He made no move to, however, making me wonder if rolling them was just a reflex. I turn my tape off and he leans over to say, “Thanks for being smart about it. It’s not an ongoing problem, but I relax around people with brains.” He’s got the gift of not seeming like he’s flattering me when he clearly is. As I leave, he shouts after me “Don’t hammer me too hard, Alex.”
DBC Pierre’s 2003 debut novel Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award. He is also the author of the novels Ludmila’s Broken English (2006), Lights Out in Wonderland (2010), Breakfast with the Borgias (2014) and the collection of short fiction and other writings Petit Mal (2013). He lives in County Leitrim, Ireland. Release the Bats is published by Faber & Faber.
Author portrait © Sarah Lee